Gaming – Design Your Sandbox Games Better!

One of the main selling points of a video game is interactivity and what better way to showcase this than in a large open area where you’re free to do pretty much anything you want to do. This is the concept of sandbox games and that’s why it’s such a popular concept. Even platformers like Croc 2 and Jak and Daxter have incorporated sandbox mechanics to make the experience more free and compelling. The sandbox element was extremely easy to find and in every other games regardless of genre: Crysis, Oblivion, Burnout Paradise/Midnight Club games, Dragon Quest VIII, etc. But here in my blog I want to put my focus on those games where this sandbox freedom is the whole game, games which all of us are very familiar with, ranging from the likes of GTAs and Mercenaries and whatnot. So thus begins yet another inquiry of all the things I consider frustrating and wrong in this genre.
DESTINATION TOO FAR

It seems that with most sandbox games, the further you get in the game, the further your destination becomes. Even in the most recent GTAIV, the game required me to pass through two islands to get to my mission destination and then escort my allies all the way back. GTAIV saves itself by having a taxi cab system in which you can simply ride in a cab and you’ll get to your destination in an instant but regardless, there still are chase missions and escort missions in GTAIV that requires you to drive for a long time. So many sandbox games do this in the later part of the game. Obviously, for sandbox games, the bigger the world, the better but developers don’t seem to realize that gamers want to explore all of that at a good pace and on their own, not through ridiculously long missions. Showing off the entire world as the game progresses is a good idea but forcing players to trek though all of it by having missions have destination extremely far is just poor design choice in my opinion.
Another thing is when a sandbox only has like one type of transportation. I heard that Saint’s Row 1 only has cars. No bikes, no motorcycles, no boats, no tanks, no choppers, no planes. Just cars. Now stuff like bikes and boats probably won’t make you reach extremely far destinations any faster but it makes getting to those destinations a lot more interesting. Having fast vehicles or including an instant travel mechanism (e.g. Oblivion) makes the sandbox experience more convenient and fluid. I just don’t understand why developers keep wanting me to drive through such long distances…

REPETITIVE VOICEOVERS FROM NPCS

In a sandbox game, it is inevitable that you’ll keep revising the same old places again and again and this is all okay except when the voices and the sound effects in certain areas are the same annoying crap you’ve heard in all the other areas. About three months ago, I was playing Crackdown on my friend’s Xbox 360 and holy crap, the annoying sound effects nearly drove me to suicide. It’s so terrible. The enemies keep repeating the same crazy shouts and weird moaning when I kill them. The game was pretty fun to explore and I’m usually a guy who doesn’t complain too much about graphics or audio (which is why most of my reviews seem to omit these aspects) but man, when a game assaults your ears (and eventually your brain) like this, the game suddenly stops becoming fun.
Not tooo many games are guilty of this terrible design, but they’re there. The villager’s voiceovers in Just Cause overlap in less than an hour and just my short experience with Mercenaries 2 demo on my PS3 gave me a massive headache, not to mention the overly pompous and intrusive orchestraic music that played in the background of that demo. I admit, this isn’t THAT big of a deal and putting lot of audio tracks into a video game must be a lot of effort, but developers must know how it may hurt the experience if they don’t do a good job on the audio department, especially since sandbox games are designed to have lot of gameplay hours.
This issue however is something I’ve never encountered in a GTA game, not even the portable GTA: Liberty City Stories (PSP). The sound effects are diverse and great and the voiceovers for NPS in all areas of the game are never boring. In GTAIV, this was one of the most impressive things because you could actually find crazy lunatics preaching about the end of the world in the streets and find people arguing near restaurants. And every time you were in a gunfight, the sound effects were crisp, beautiful, and the enemy voiceovers not too extreme. I just wish all sandbox games had at least half of this amount of polish in their games.

YOU = MOST WANTED

Like an FPS game, one big thing that can hurt a sandbox game is the enemy A.I, especially when it’s set to shoot and target you and you only when they see you. I will mention Crackdown again because once again, this game is horrible when it comes to this issue. The moment you respawn, there are bullets flying everywhere. No matter what you’re doing, whether you’re driving down the street, jumping on buildings like a superhero, if they see you, they will shoot and they will hit. Perhaps this is why you have a regenerating health system but the harassment is endless and rather annoying. You die, you respawn, and it’s the same thing. Man, do they hate your guts.
The thing about this is that not only is it annoying but it can also be extremely frustrating. I remember playing Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and while the free-roaming and action in the game was pretty damn fun, jesus, there’s just a constant barrage of bullets, missiles, tank rounds, all coming at you non-stop. It’s ridiculous. I guess it’s to make sure the action never stops but it would be nice to see some kind of nice dynamic for the A.I. Don’t they ever get a bit scared of the big green beast? And how come they’re always so damn accurate with their weapons? The bad a.i. just makes me lose immersion in a game cause it just feels like I’m fighting against a flawless computer program and in an sense, that is exactly what I’m doing. And really, that isn’t fun. People criticize Crysis for having dumb A.I. but at least Crytek tried to make the A.I. dynamic and more human in their actions. Sure it resulted in some bugs here and there but I think that’s better than just this constant barrage of bullets all headed towards you and hitting you 24/7.

COLLECTATHONS AS SIDEQUESTS? UGH

249 pidgeons to find and kill? You call this a fun diversion? Are you serious? I’m disappointed in you GTAIV. So instead of firetruck missions or ambulance missions or derby arenas, this is your answer for those wanting something to do other than story missions? I’m speechless.
Actually, no I’m not speechless. I’m just really upset. I don’t mind the fact that majority of sandbox games have some things to collect. GTA San Andreas was nuts with this idea, since in that game, you had to find grafitis, sea shells, horse shoes and some other stuff. It had massive colletathons but in that game, collectathons were just there as extras and didn’t even feel like sidequests cause there were so many other things to do, like mining missions, dating your girlfriend, partaking in gang wars… In GTAIV, the majority of the side stuff are so boring that you might as well just collect pidgeons!
Now, you may feel like I’m singling out GTAIV here but no, lot of other sandbox games do this too. It’s just that I had expected a lot of fun out of GTAIV (I was really hyped for this one) and didn’t get it but instead, got a collectathon. I’m not a big fan of collectathons at all. Collectathons in Spiderman 1-3… not fun. Collectathon in Crackdown (mentioned yet again lol), not fun. The only time collectathon is fun is in platforming games like Jak and Daxter cause it’s fun getting to those hidden places. But in pure sandbox games, having better sidequests is much better than having gamers collect worthless and useless icons.

DEATH = RETRY FROM BEGINNING

I mentioned that in most sandbox games, the later parts of the game require you to travel to extremely far distances. This is bad because in most sandbox games, dying means retrying from the very beginning. In GTA games you actually have to drive back to the location of the person you’re doing the mission for, skip through the cutscene (which requires you pass through a loading screen), accept the mission again, and then travel all the way back to your mission. Such a hassle. The new cellphone system in GTAIV makes this a bit more convenient but the experience would be much better if it had some kind of checkpoint systems for the missions. Having to do the entire mission from the very beginning and driving everywhere again and skipping through the same cutscene is just really tedious. I understand that you don’t want me to die in these games, but you don’t have to punish me so much. We’re not in the NES era anymore. Games are supposed to be more convenient and easy to pick up and play.

CAN I SAVE MY GAME NOW?

I swear sometimes, playing these sandbox games makes me feel like I’m playing an SNES game. Things seem to be getting better lately but even a game that was recently released as GTAIV doesn’t seem to have a very easy save system. Unless you have auto-save feature on, you still have to go back to your home/apartment and go to your bed to save the game. GTAIV is not as inconvenient as the previous games in the series but not too much seems to have changed in this realm. In fact, the way you save the vehicles you obtained is messier and buggier since you have to park it inside these white lines in order to have that vehicle available for use the next time you play the game.
Speaking of vehicle saves, I would love it if a game let me save a vehicle in my garage and once saved, it’ll always be there. So for example, if I took the car out for a drive and completely wrecked it, the next time I play the game, the car will still be in my garage unless I put a different car in the garage afterwards. Saving vehicles in GTA games never made much sense because once you used it, it was gone unless you got it back into the garage in a good condition, and that’s easier said than done.
Anywho, back to what I was talking about. This genre seriously just needs much more convenient way of saving than just the game either(1) automatically saving after you fail/succeed a mission or (2) having you go back to a certain specific area to save your game. There’s actually a menu screen you can access in most sandbox games. Why not just put a save feature right in there? Why do I have to spend extra 10 minutes to save a game?
Seriously, I remember when I was 17, I was playing GTA San Andreas on my computer and then my parents called out and said it was dinner time. I told them to wait a while cause I needed to save the game, in case my computer crashed while I was eating dinner (yes, windows sucks, but now I’m digressing). When I finally got to my dinner table, my dad yelled at me for making them wait so long. If San Andreas had a more convenient save system, I wouldn’t have gotten yelled at. Not to mention the guilt I felt to my parents for making them wait over a video game…

Since I haven’t played too many sandbox games and since most of my sandbox experience comes from the GTA franchise more than anything else, I honestly can’t think of any more design flaws in this genre than that but I think they’re reasonable complaints nonetheless. Even tho my experience in this genre is not much, I do feel like a lot of sandbox games have these design issues. I probably need to play a lot more of them to know what they’re like (still haven’t played any of the Yakuza games for example) so hey, if you guys want to give me your input on this stuff, go right ahead. I’m sure some of you have way more experience with sandbox games than I ever will. Thanks for reading and as always, all feedback is greatly appreciated. 🙂